This paper will explore Stephen Crane’s 1898 novella, The Monster, in a critical race approach. Inside this theme, there will be discussions based on alienation, class distinctions, race relations, racism, labeling, and especially the mob violence, a movement very popular among the population of the 1890s. A period of intense and horrifying racial violence, where many laws were created to prevent African Americans from integrating in society, the appearance of race labeling and the lynch. Also, it will incorporate passages from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, trying to compare and contrast the role that alienation plays in both stories. I will also try to discuss criminality on my research, applying Becker’s (1963) labeling theory on all examples provided.
Racism, Monstrosity and Labeling: Crane’s The Monster and Shelley’s Frankenstein
I had never in my life been abuse by whites, but I had already become conditioned to their existence as though I had been the victim of a thousand lynchings. The penalty of death awaited me if I made a false move and I wondered if it was worth-while to make any move at all.
I was compelled to give my entire imagination over to it, an act which blocked the springs of thought and feeling in me, creating a sense of distance between me and the world in which I lived.
(Richard Wright. qtd. in Woods)
Is there such a thing as race? According to the Bible, didn’t God create all men his image? “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1.27). But if there were, what purpose would it have? For sure it wouldn’t be to distinguish different kind of people from each other. That is why society created class distinctions already, or if brought back in history we can simply call it caste system. According to dictionaries, race is defined as follow: “any of the traditional divisions of humankind…characterized by supposedly distinctive and universal physical characteristics” (“Race”).
So what would make certain human traits considered as better than the others? And why would the chosen “inferior” race be subjected to persecution and even attempts toward extinction? This research focuses not only on racism of human color, mainly based on Crane’s (1898) novella, but as well as on alienation and labeling. Crane’s (1898) The Monster, and Mary Shelley’s (1818) Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus are both perfect examples of alienation and racism.
Throughout the centuries, humankind has a dark history of condemning different types of people who did not meet their social status or physical beauty. History makes it clear how white people mistreated blacks with slavery, human mistreatment, persecutions and many other things. But difference in skin color has not been the only reason for acts of racism against others. If we examine the caste system used in ancient Asia, it is clear how social status, lineage, and even physical traits were taken into consideration to make people feel superior to others.
In Stephen Crane’s (1898) novella, The Monster, Henry Johnson is an African American man that used to work for a white doctor, Dr. Trescott. Henry was in charge of taking care of the doctor’s horses; clearly showing class distinctions between characters, Henry the stable man and Trescott, the doctor. After a fire took place at Trescott’s house, Henry got his face disfigured by one of the doctor’s chemical substance while attempting to save young Jimmie, Trescott’s son. Now, Henry was not only a victim of racial stereotype but also fitted in the subject of alienation, since he was excluded by the townspeople due to his disfigured face. “Folks go round saying he ain’t Hennery Johnson at all. They say he’s er devil” (Crane 361).
Analyzing a brief history of American racism, we are able to conclude how the United States was, or still is, the country with the most racial issues in the world. After the U.S. president, Abraham Lincoln, passed the Emancipation Proclamation back in 1863, there were still many laws and actions against African Americans. Slavery could have ended, but racism never did, many segregation laws were created against blacks after the emancipation. With the Civil Rights Act in 1875, we could say that things got better for African Americans, but small groups of white people still persecuted them in southern states.
On June 7, 1892, Homer Plessy was sent to jail for sitting in a white’s man railcar. The state of Louisiana held segregation laws prohibiting African Americans from riding with white people. Plessy, a stereotypical Creole – name given for African Americans who descended from French and Spanish colonies – could easily “pass” as a white man. Just as Nella Larsen (1929) in her famous novel, Passing, would say that he have “passed”, turned into a white person. But resisting the Louisiana’s Separate Car Act (1892), he purposely sat in the white man’s section of the railcar and stated the he was black.
Plessy went on trial in 1896 in the U.S. Supreme Court alleging that the Separate Car Act (1892) was unconstitutional, it violated the Fourteenth Amendment in the U.S. Constitution. But the court found no evidence of violation and found Plessy guilty. The aftermath made the Supreme Court endorse the “separate but equal doctrine”, stating that was okay to separate both races even though they are all equal. Such doctrine only came to an end in 1954, when Brown v. Board of Education forced the U.S. Supreme Court ban the doctrine allowing African Americans attend white people schools. (Christianson)
Despite all the fighting in the courtrooms, other movements gained power in southern states. The end of the Ku Klux Klan in 1871 by the Klan Act, only urged the formation of small white groups with the intent to terrorize African Americans. The 1890s, period when Crane’s novella was written, three attacks against African Americans were formed to not only segregate them from society but also to impede any further involvement, especially in politics. Disenfranchisement, Jim Crow Laws, and the lynching took over white’s ideology.
Disenfranchisement meant to prevent African Americans from voting. The Jim Crow Laws were laws in southern states formally segregating blacks from public facilities, it was in this period that the label whites and colored appeared in signs and public places. The lynching was a mob violence targeting African Americans where they were “chased with dogs, brutally beaten, then hung or burned alive” (O’Malley).
The lynching is where one can make parallels to Crane’s (1898) novella, The Monster. According to Elaine Marshall, Crane’s (1898) novella was inspired by the lynching of Robert Lewis. “ I…propose another possibility as an imaginative source for Crane’s novella: his brother William’s eyewitness account of the lynching of Robert Lewis” (206). She further explains the word “imaginative” because there is no lynching in the story. Also, Crane didn’t personally witness the lynch, his brother William did, but he probably mentioned to Crane since it was a remarkable event to him as he failed to save Lewis from dying.
Other comparisons that Elaine Marshall brings in her essay are the roles of the characters in the story and Lewis’s lynch. “In Stephen Crane’s story the role of judge and doctor are reversed, but the moral dilemma is essentially the same” (216). While Judge Hagenthorpe argues with Dr. Trescott that there was no meaning on saving Henry’s life, the same happens with Crane’s brother during Lewis’ lynch, but with roles switched. “Dr. Illman suddenly jerked me back and says, “there is no use, Judge, we will only get hurt”’(qtd. in Marshall 216).
Crane’s (1898) novella depicts exactly how post reconstruction era society behaved. Everything was a motive for the crowd gets together, even if it wasn’t for a lynching. “A Saturday evening was a sign always for a larger crowd to parade the thoroughfare” (Crane 348). But it was the lynching of some African American that gathered the most amounts of people; even the newspaper would advertise the happening. “3,000 will burn negro. John Hartfield will be lynched by Ellisville Mob at 5 o’clock this afternoon. Negro Jerky and Sullen as burning hours nears” (O’Malley). According to Michael O’Malley, a mass of people showed up bringing picnic baskets and even took souvenirs of the body home.
In The Monster, there is no lynching that occurs at any time, but the idea of it is very present. “He began to run, and a big crowd chased him, firing rocks” (Crane 368). This assumes that if Henry were caught by the mob, they would probably lynch him. Another passage that supports this idea is when Crane writes a conversation between the doctor Trescott and a police officer: “ but you know how a crowd get. It’s like – it’s like – Yes, I know” (Crane 368). Crane didn’t want to mention the word lynch, probably afraid of so many acts of racism and violence during that time, but it is very clear what his idea was. He also writes suggesting that Trescott takes a “black” veil to cover Henry’s face when taking him out of jail, showing the color black as a sign of shame and shadow.
The opening of The Monster also suggests some racist ideas. A white kid son of an important doctor, being best “pals” with a black stableman, seems too ironic. Crane depicts the friendship between Henry and Jimmie, Trescott’s son, a positive point in the story. “These two were pals. In regard to almost everything in life they seemed to have minds precisely alike.” (Crane 345). But in fact, this description of a black man’s acceptance is totally the opposite if analyzed carefully. Johnson being best “pals” with Jimmie explains how African Americans were seen inferior to the white man by society.
Jimmie could be considered Henry’s best friend, because only a child would be able to have a dialogue with a black person according to Crane. “Maxwell Geismar characterizes attitude towards blacks as one of condescending sympathy; Crane considered them childlike beings” (Landa 3). The personal oath that Trescott makes to take care of Henry Johnson is also contradictory, and can easily be seen as the “white’s man burden”. The duty that a white man have over the “weak” non-whites. Elizabeth Young also argues in her book, Black Frankenstein: The Making of an American Metaphor, that there is “ample evidence throughout The Monster of racist stereotypes. For example, Johnson’s girlfriend, Bella Farragut, lives with her family on “Watermelon Alley”’ (87).
Another point that can be reached through Crane’s novella is the connection between monstrosity and the color black. Society has always characterized dark and shadow as evil, the same idea is presented in The Monster. When Henry appears at Page’s party, one of the girls see him through the window and screams, they open the door to see who was there, and by seen the dark of the night she screams again. “He was obliged to escort the little girl home because she screamed again when they opened the door and she saw the night” (Crane 366). It seems that the little girl was much more afraid of the “dark” night than the “monster”.
Crane describes the Negro in his story in two different ways, one where he is invisible to society and the other as an evil monster. Both stereotypes Henry to the lowest level. First, he is invisible to society, only a few people is aware of him, but after he attempts to save Jimmie from the fire and supposedly “die”, the news spread and he becomes a hero.
In the breasts of many people was the regret that they had not known enough to give him a hand and a lift when he was alive, and they judged themselves stupid and ungenerous for this failure. The name of Henry Johnson became suddenly the title of a saint to the little boys. (Crane 357)
But when Henry recovers and is seen without a face, totally disfigured, he becomes the devil, a wretched monster. “Plenty cul’d people folks up my way say it is a devil” (Crane 361).